FORMER representative Robert Garcia and his wife Jane were acquitted of bribery last October, but convicted of extortion and conspiracy in connection with the Wedtech scandal. On Friday, a U.S. Court of Appeals in New York reversed these convictions and remanded the case to the trial court. The appeals court ruling is not a vindication of the Garcias. Nor is it likely to convince the former lawmaker's constituents that he should be returned to office. The convictions were overturned because of a procedural foul-up: the jury did not indicate which of two kinds of extortion the defendants had committed.
The appeals panel found prosecutors had proved that Mr. Garcia made a "disgraceful request for money" from Wedtech and promised in return to use his influence on its behalf. But is that extortion, a crime usually understood to involve gangsters who threaten to burn down a store or break somebody's legs if not paid protection money? One element of that crime is to put people in fear of harm if they don't pay. The government did not prove Wedtech's officers were in fear of the congressman. "By paying the Garcias," the appellate court found, "Wedtech was purchasing an advocate, not buying off a thug."
The extortion statute, however, offers an alternative definition of the crime. The Garcias could have been demanding money not by threatening Wedtech but "under color of official right." Proof was offered that Mr. Garcia demanded payment because he was a congressman and was going to perform a service for the company. Perhaps the jury convicted him of this kind of extortion. The trouble is that there is no way of knowing what was in the jurors' minds; the judge did not instruct them to make this distinction clear. On this basis the conviction was overturned. The government may still elect to try the Garcias again on the second type of extortion.
None of this obscures the evidence brought out at trial that the congressman was paid a lot of money -- more than $76,000 -- for doing very little for Wedtech. There is no claim here that Mr. Garcia was simply acting on behalf of a company that employed a number of his constituents. That kind of service is provided without a fee. There was never even a pretense that the money was a campaign contribution. Wedtech, a government program designed to help minority entrepreneurs, in fact did nothing for the workers of the South Bronx and simply lined the pockets of lawyers, lobbyists, influence peddlers and -- worst of all -- elected officials.